Deaccession For Fun And Profit

Most of our “work” (Who are we kidding? We get to play with neat stuff and meet cool people every day … not really work!) involves normal, accessible vintage items and antiques. Often, we are asked to help liquidate important estates for attorneys, courts and even our customs office. Additionally, throughout the years, we have been asked to help museums “deaccession” pieces. Deaccession means, frankly, to sell off items at the highest amount possible for the benefit of the museum. We have helped identify, catalog and deaccession pieces for museums many times over the years, and it is always fun.

We sometimes place these things privately, but usually sell them at auction for the purpose of complete transparency. Our first was a privately owned toy museum in the early ’90s that was open to the public for over 35 years. The heirs just didn’t want the amazing, rare items. While we have worked with many museums (one of our most enjoyable led to manufacturing a watch in Switzerland for the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore) — including selling hundreds of artworks for the Edna Hibbel Museum in Palm Beach — our two most exciting interactions were local.

A Trip To The Museum

A few years back, when we were chosen to be one of 50 dealers in the U.S. to be a part of, the St. Petersburg Museum of History asked us to help them eliminate some clutter from one of their storerooms. Most museums will accept almost anything donated, but an estimated 90 percent is never exhibited.

Donations are important to museums, especially monetary donations, and we strongly support this. But the incredible amount of items donated to museums can often create a storage headache.

This museum let us tour their basement; we identified many things to sell for them and sold an array of goods, from textiles to Native American items that were in danger of degradation. The most space-consuming group of items was a huge group of life and death masks that a retired Ivy League college professor had donated 40 years ago.

The professor had been in charge of the college’s mask collection and decided to make “one off” casts of each mask. Pick a president or composer — we likely had an exact copy of that person’s face in our office. We sold them on the Hess Fine Art portion of; some brought only a few dollars, but several brought hundreds of dollars.

An Incredibly Expensive Rolex Watch

Just this year, we helped with (and are still involved in) deaccession of the contents of the Sulphur Springs Museum in Tampa, including a lot of things transferred from the Museum of Science and Industry. Incredible provenance was attached, and we raised quite a sum for them. And two months ago, we were thrilled to be able to identify for the Museum of Fine Arts St. Petersburg one among a group of old watches they thought were worthless — an old steel moon phase Rolex that we told them might fetch as much as $250,000 to $350,000, with a conservative auction estimate of $150,000 to $250,000! We even had a hard cash offer of $300,000 for them and told them we were not done yet.

moon face watch


They were thrilled with the news, of course. But before we could present them with an even higher offer, they decided to sell it with another venue, Sotheby’s, with an even lower estimate for $100,000 to $200,000.

Ultimately, they were able to net close to the same $300,000 I offered them, but through Sotheby’s. We love to do community service and are happy we were able to assist them, even if they rebuffed our robust offer. So whether your item gets exhibited or not, at some point in the future it may bear fruit.

This is an archival article formerly written and is for informational purposes only. The valuations in this article have likely changed since it was first written.

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